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The debatable fuss over Paul Ryan

History shows power eludes vice-presidents

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On the witty new HBO television series Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus -- in a more mature and biting version of her Elaine character on Seinfeld -- stars as U.S. Vice-President Selina Meyer, who is in constant search of a job.

In almost every show, her most frequent question to her secretary is "Did the president call?" And the response is always the same: "No!"

Disgruntled by her lack of power, she is forced to cut ribbons and visit senior homes and daycares. In one episode, there is great excitement when she is told the president might have had a heart attack.

She responds to this news like Seinfeld's George, who when told of his fiancée Susan's death from licking toxic envelopes, showed "restrained jubilation." For a few hours, Selina is giddy with delight as she contemplates the future. Alas, it turns out the president was only suffering from heartburn.

Nearly all of the 47 men who have served as U.S. vice-president would no doubt sympathize with Selina's ordeal. The first vice-president under George Washington was John Adams, who described his position as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.

Or put a bit less subtly by John Nance Garner, who served for two terms as vice-president with Franklin Roosevelt: The vice-presidency "isn't worth a pitcher of warm piss."

In a 1948 interview, Garner described the office as "almost wholly unimportant," and some years after that declared being vice president "was the worst thing that ever happened to me."

From the daily barrage of news and television stories, media profiles and opinion pieces, you would think Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's young, photogenic choice as his vice-presidential running mate, is the man who will seal the deal for Romney, as asserted by Prof. Peter Morici (Ryan could put Romney in the White House, Aug. 14).

Morici and other commentators have highlighted Ryan's reputation as the "intellectual leader" of the Republican Party. Ryan has made his mark in Washington by advocating a Tea Party agenda that includes extensive cuts to government spending on medical aid to the poor and social security as well as slashing taxes. A devout Catholic, he is also an outspoken opponent of abortion.

At the same time, definitely unlike the 2008 VP candidate Sarah Palin, Ryan is saleable and credible as a potential future president, the main function of a vice-president. He has enlivened the conservative base of the Republican Party, brought in even more money for Romney and created a more definite right-left division with the Democrats. An articulate speaker, he will easily handle himself in his debate with Vice-President Joe Biden.

Yet the most telling remark was Romney's correction of who was calling the shots. Ryan suggested if he and Romney are elected his Tea Party-endorsed budget will be implemented. Romney quickly countered that idea. "I have my budget plan," he said. "And that's the budget plan we're going to run on."

It is questionable as to why there is such a fuss about Ryan or any other vice-presidential nominee (though again understandable in Palin's case given her complete lack of preparedness for that job, let alone the presidency). The historical record shows decisively a vice-president's power has been generally limited and dependent on the whim of his presidential boss.

The worst case might be John Breckenridge, who was vice-president in the late 1850s. He was not able to make an appointment to see President James Buchanan for more than three years. Similarly, given little to do by President Ulysses Grant, Henry Wilson used his time in office to complete a three-volume history of American slavery.

The job is hardly a stepping-stone to the presidency. Very few vice-presidents have gone on to become president; the last one to achieve this was George H.W. Bush in the 1980s.

Lyndon Johnson, who became president after the assassination of John F. Kennedy -- one of four vice-presidents to attain the office this way -- was subjected to a typical vice-presidential experience. He was a seasoned senator from Texas when JFK asked him to be his running mate for the 1960 election, mainly because JFK thought Johnson would be useful in winning Texas and other southern states, which he was.

Johnson, in turn, believed he could buck the trend and have real influence over Kennedy's policies. That proved to be a gross miscalculation as Johnson was immediately shunted aside and was forced to endure three years of virtual powerlessness until JFK was killed. He never forgave Robert Kennedy, JFK's most trusted adviser, for being the principal architect of this perceived humiliation.

Still there have been a few notable exceptions to this rule. Jimmy Carter utilized Walter Mondale as a chief adviser and foreign affairs policy advocate, while Bill Clinton ensured Al Gore had a significant role in his White House. And, of all the vice-presidents, Dick Cheney was truly the king, wielding an enormous influence on George W. Bush's presidency. Among other things, he directed that suspected terrorists be subjected to waterboarding and successfully pushed for an attack on Iraq.

For the most part, there is a truism about an American election campaign articulated by an aide to Hubert Humphrey, who was vice-president under Johnson. "Once the election is over," he said, "the vice-president's usefulness is over. He's like the second stage of a rocket. He's damn important going into orbit, but he's always thrown off to burn up in the atmosphere."

Some political observers believe in the event of a Romney victory, Ryan will be a vice-president more like Cheney than LBJ -- that despite Romney's claim to the contrary, Ryan will indeed influence policy in a Romney administration.

From Romney's point of view, the media attention on Ryan for the next few months is bound to boost support from American conservatives who wondered about Romney's commitment to their cause.

"Let's win the election first," you can almost hear Romney telling Ryan, "and then we'll see about your role."


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in an historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 27, 2012 A10

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